Families Of Sweat Lodge Victims Detail Emotions
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CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) — They lost a daughter, husband and mother in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony.
On Tuesday, Ginny Brown, Alyssa Gillespie and Andrea Puckett told jurors how the deaths of their family members have impacted them emotionally. The testimony could lead to an enhanced sentence for a self-help author convicted in the deaths if the jury delivers a finding that emotional harm is among three aggravating factors it is considering.
James Arthur Ray was convicted last week of three counts of negligent homicide, putting the blame on him for the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee and Liz Neuman, 48, of Prior Lake, Minn.
Ginny Brown took the opportunity to look Ray in the eye as she recounted how a New York State trooper knocked on her door the day after the October 2009 ceremony to tell her that her eldest of four children had died in the October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony and how she screamed upon hearing the news.
“When someone young dies unexpectedly, you’re forever mourning their lost future,” Brown said. “That’s been really hard. Everything that happens is bittersweet because we know Kirby should be there.”
Ray faces more than 11 years in prison but probation also is an option.
The attorneys on the case settled on a trio of aggravating factors for the jury to consider — emotional harm to the victims’ families, the unique position of trust Ray had with the defendants and whether he benefited financially or otherwise from his conduct. Prosecutors offered no testimony on the latter two factors.
The attorneys will give closing arguments Wednesday.
Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Warren Darrow will assign weight to any aggravating factors the jury finds. Ray’s attorneys will present mitigating factors separately that could include character witnesses and the fact that Ray had no prior convictions.
Gillespie offered the most emotional testimony of the day, her voice breaking as she began her testimony by saying Shore was her husband, partner and best friend of 13 years. While she said she doesn’t believe she’s had a chance to grieve properly, her three children have struggled with separation anxiety, bouts of and thoughts about violence, and Christmas wishes that Santa would bring their father back.
“They all grew up overnight,” she said. “They no longer had the childhood fantasy that everything was OK. It totally crashed for them.”
The oldest daughter, 13-year-old Inaya, exhibited the most extreme behavior, she said, asking her mother to kill her so she could join her father.
Gillespie saw her massage therapy business crumble. Since Shore took care of all the bills, she said she was uncertain whether their cars were paid off or who provided their cell phone service.
She said she has a lot of support from friends and family, but Shore “was my go-to for everything. That’s who I talked to, so it’s been very hard.”
Neuman entered the sweat lodge on her daughter’s birthday and had planned to celebrate with her afterward, Puckett said. When she heard something had gone wrong, she scoured the Internet for information, eventually giving a physical description of her mother to the Flagstaff hospital to identify Neuman, who was listed as a Jane Doe.
Neuman slipped into a coma after the two-hour ceremony near Sedona. Her organs were failing, she had minor seizures, her body was swollen, she was on dialysis and was hooked up to a lot of machines, Puckett said. The family was told she had almost no chance of surviving, and decided to take her off life support.
“You want to hang on to that hope, but at the same time you have to think about her and what she would want,” Puckett said. “The hardest part of being there was having to make that decision.”
Puckett’s daughter and what would have been Neuman’s first granddaughter, 9-month-old Lauren, was born a year to the date that she dropped her mom off at the airport to go to Ray’s event. Lauren’s middle name, Marie, is the same as Neuman’s.
Puckett wished Neuman could have witnessed the birth and offered advice on how to be a mom. “There are a lot of things I feel like I still could have learned from her,” Puckett said.
Puckett said one of her brothers struggles with anxiety and depression, while the other feels he lost out on a mother-son dance at his wedding.
Brown’s family was almost uniquely situated to deal with Kirby Brown’s death. Both of her parents are social workers, her cousin has a public relations business, and an attorney in the family represented them in legal disputes.
Ginny Brown said she hasn’t allowed sadness or anger to rule her life. She keeps her daughter’s hair that was tied up in a ponytail before she cut it off during Ray’s events on her dresser as a reminder of the woman she described as “drunk on life.” Like Puckett, Brown said she struggled to learn more about the week’s events and was horrified that her daughter did not recognize the potential danger.
“This has been one of the things that’s been so difficult for us to understand. All I can think about is how her free will choice was to believe in James Ray,” she said looking at Ray, who was seated in her view from the witness stand.
When Kirby Brown died, her family cremated her body, spreading some of her ashes in the Atlantic Ocean and some at one of her surfing spots in Mexico, where she was setting up a home.
“She’s not an earthbound kind of person,” Ginny Brown said.
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